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Constituency profile: Plain sailing for Sinn Fein’s Molloy in Mid Ulster

  • Outgoing MP: Francie Molloy (Sinn Fein)
  • 2017 result: Sinn Fein hold
  • Majority: 12,890 votes
  • Candidates: Mel Boyle (Alliance), Keith Buchanan (DUP), Denise Johnston (SDLP), Francie Molloy (Sinn Fein), Neil Richardson (UUP)
  • Electorate: 68,485

On the surface, calm political waters on the western shores of Lough Neagh make for plain sailing as Sinn Fein defend a majority of almost 13,000.

But is there a surprise hidden in the depths? Well, no, not really. What you see is what you get.

"Given the figures, it would be something of a political earthquake were Francie Molloy not to retain his seat come December 12," was how Tyrone Courier deputy editor Matthew Dawson succinctly summed up the contest, if you could call it that.

"Last time he bagged over half of the total votes cast, second only for his party in the whole of Northern Ireland to their result in West Belfast."

Once a stronghold of unionism, Mid-Ulster's political shift was sealed when the boundary changes of 1997 saw Sinn Fein seize the opportunity to run Martin McGuinness against sitting DUP MP William McCrea.

Since that victory the Sinn Fein majority has grown steadily and, after three successive terms, Francie Molloy stands untouchable. In 2017 he secured 54.5% of the total vote.

Francie Molloy

The three main urban areas are the market towns of Dungannon, Cookstown in Co Tyrone and Magherafelt in Co Londonderry, but much of the electorate is spread through a rural landscape tucked between the Sperrin Mountains to the north and west and Lough Neagh to the east.

The agri-food sector is key, as is construction, but the majority of employment is owed to a reputation for high quality manufacturing and engineering - over 40% of jobs locally are in that field.

And for that reason outgoing MP Francie Molloy feels his party's stance against Brexit will be a deciding factor.

"This is an area where our economy will be severely damaged," he said.

"We also have many people from across the EU who have chosen to come here to work and make their home and they are being threatened.

"Voters here have a chance to again reject Brexit, reject the Tories and reject their Brexit-supporting cheerleaders in the DUP. Brexit has been the big issue on the doorsteps."

In truth, it's hard to see any sort of a challenge coming from any other party, so that rejection of Brexit will be cemented with a Sinn Fein return in what is a now a firmly nationalist controlled area. Long gone are the days of 1983 when the constituency saw its tightest election, with the DUP's Rev William McCrea defeating Sinn Fein's Danny Morrison by just 84 votes.

In 2013 independent candidate Nigel Lutton got within 5,000 votes of Sinn Fein, but that's as good as it's been for unionism in recent times.

On the streets, the feeling has always been that the community is living in a constituency that's too often neglected - an area you pass through on the way from Belfast to Londonderry, with a lack of investment in infrastructure leaving the towns, particularly Cookstown, isolated. Mid-Ulster Hospital in Magherafelt has all but gone and aside from a bypass for Magherafelt there has been little in the way of visible investment in recent years.

Keith Buchanan

For the DUP's Keith Buchanan this election is about maximising the unionist vote and loosening the Sinn Fein stranglehold.

In contrast to his Sinn Fein opponent, he's not finding Brexit the main issue on the doorsteps.

"It's mentioned once every 100 doors," he said. "Other issues, like not being represented are more important. "We need to send a message," he said. "We're not Belfast or Londonderry and we have to shout loudly to be heard, but there is a lot more industry in Mid-Ulster than people think. The constituency hasn't changed since 1997 and I've found it to be quite a polarised area compared to others. There's little middle ground."

That rings true. The Alliance Party is fielding Mel Boyle and the UUP standing Neil Richardson. They will have their work cut out to make any inroads into the big two vote.

Political Editor Suzanne Breen examines the battle for a DUP hotseat in North Belfast.

Neil Richardson

Believed to be the youngest candidate standing in Northern Ireland, the campaign trail will be a learning curve for 20-year-old UUP man Neil Richardson.

"I'm finding people are more concerned about education and health," he said. "Brexit isn't as big a problem as some would have you believe. There's also a concern that no one is speaking up for the people here.

"If we can show a majority of people are voting for a candidate who will represent them then that's a firm message."

The SDLP's Denise Johnston said her campaign is focused on giving people something more than the current empty seat at Westminster.

"Brexit is a national emergency and it's just not good enough that our MP has decided to abstain on this island's future," she said.

"Our future is being decided in London and we're having no say in it. No more. I will not sit idly by as our interests are undermined."

According to Mr Molloy, Sinn Fein's policy of not taking seats shouldn't be used as an issue.

"Mid-Ulster has a long history of abstention so it has never been a concern here," he said.

Campaign as Sinn Fein's opponents will, the common consensus is that there'll be little sizzle coming from the streets of Cookstown this time. The political fire was doused in 1997.

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